How to Make Guilt Work Towards Your Recovery
Guilt can be a common obstacle in recovery, but feeling badly over what you have done or failed to do in the past doesn’t have to lead to relapse or hamstring your recovery in other ways. On the contrary, guilt can in fact be a positive and constructive tool for furthering your recovery. Learn how:
Who among us hasn’t felt guilty over something we’ve said or done or, equally important, something we’ve failed to say or do? When it comes to recovery, we’re already faced with numerous and often conflicting responsibilities that can tend to get in the way of making progress in healing. Yet, one little-known tidbit about guilt is that we can make it work for us in recovery, not against us. Here’s a look at just how guilt can be repurposed and adapted so it’s helpful to recovery goals.
DO AN ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT ABOUT GUILT
Forget about beating yourself up over guilt you feel about the terrible things you’ve done. Living in the past won’t change anything. Continuing to wallow in guilt won’t either. It’s time to make a profound shift in your attitude about guilt. Instead of viewing guilt as completely negative, recognize that guilt can serve some useful purposes in your recovery journey. It’s not that you feel guilty, but how you accept those feelings and move on from there to do something constructive and proactive for your recovery that matters.
BE WILLING TO FACE YOUR GUILTY FEELINGS
You won’t go anywhere, of course, until you’ve arrived at a willingness to face what you feel guilty about. Yet, facing your guilty feelings takes a bit of courage and discipline. After all, feeling remorse or sadness over actions that have hurt others is not pleasant and not something you look forward to doing. As in the case of fear, once you face your guilty feelings, you rob them of the power to control you, to keep you from making progress in recovery. Again, it won’t be easy to look at what’s causing you consternation, to realize when you are or have been behaving badly, yet this is exactly the first step in turning guilt from a negative to working in your favor on your recovery journey.
GUILT IS A VALUABLE EMOTION
When contemplating all the emotions available to us, singling out guilt as good doesn’t immediately come to mind. While there’s a lot of negativity attached to guilt, it isn’t always bad. In fact, guilt can be quite a valuable emotion in your recovery efforts. How? It can help you maintain ties to others in your recovery network, each of whom has struggled in some way to overcome guilt because of their past deeds.
For example, Step Nine in 12-Step groups is making amends: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Step Nine involves making up for the wrong that you’ve done and the hurt you’ve caused others either directly to the people involved, or indirectly by doing charitable deeds for others. Guilt can serve to motivate and spur you to begin this all-important step.
Guilt can also remind you to be good to family, friends, neighbors, your sponsor, fellow 12-Step group members, co-workers, even strangers. Being good and doing good lights up your soul, helping erase the negative effects of guilt and promoting positive changes in recovery.
POSITIVE GUILT KEEPS YOU ON THE STRAIGHT AND NARROW
You’ve seen the negative effects that guilt can have on others as well as yourself. Considering that guilt is such a powerful emotion, it may be helpful to know that one positive effect of guilt is to help you adhere to the path of recovery you’ve chosen. Granted, you’ve got a lot of changes to make and you’ve demonstrated your commitment to sobriety by getting clean and sober and embarking on the recovery journey. Accepting that you’ve done dreadful things and that you’ve made the choice to do better will help you make the right decisions going forward.
Part of why this happens is that guilt can act as both your conscience and your guide. It can, therefore, influence you to do the right thing as well as serve as a deterrent to future wrongdoing. Guilt can encourage positive action, foster or create feelings of empathy or sympathy, and contribute to making you a more sensitive, better human being.
MORE WAYS TO MAKE GUILT WORK TOWARDS YOUR RECOVERY
Getting guilt to work for your recovery and not against it will take dedication and practice. It also requires hope and a willingness to admit mistakes. You’ll need to let go of perfectionism and the striving to always be first or best or right in all endeavors. You are only human, after all, prone to mistakes but also gifted with the wisdom and courage to learn from those mistakes and become stronger for the experiences.
Here are a few more ways you can make guilt work towards your recovery:
Live in the Present
It’s always easier to live in the past than to deal with and live in the present. The past is familiar, if painful, while the present requires you to act. The past is memory, much of it unpleasant, some of it decidedly bitter and shameful. The present, however, offers hope and promise, the opportunity to make much-needed and desired changes. Recovery is a journey that is ongoing, never static. Embrace what’s now, as this is what life is all about. You can only act in the present, so make wise choices and use this time to advance your recovery.
Build an Effective Support System
Perhaps you’ve surrounded yourself with acquaintances and friends who aren’t supportive of your recovery efforts. While you may feel guilty distancing yourself from them, this is something you must do to be successful in your sobriety. As you find new, sober friends, they can help fill the void and be positive contributors to your ongoing recovery. Your peers in the 12-Step groups, your sponsor, family, and friends who encourage and support your sobriety will greatly assist your recovery. This is a gradual process, building an effective support system or network, yet it is one that is worth any effort you expend.
Try New Experiences
Now that you’re in recovery, you’re not limited in what you can do with your life. No longer shackled by addiction, you’re free to explore areas you’ve never considered, to embark on experiences you may only have dreamed about, if you’ve allowed yourself that luxury. Now is the time to try new experiences, such as mountain climbing, parasailing, snorkeling or scuba diving, downhill skiing, getting involved in a hobby or other recreational pursuit, travel, cooking, gardening, carpentry, going back to school or learning a new skill. As you learn, you’ll gain confidence, which helps you celebrate positive changes in your life in sobriety.
Mindfulness can help you learn how to focus on this moment, to live in the present, not dwelling in the past. Mindfulness can also help you cope with painful or unpleasant memories or guilty feelings that suddenly appear and can derail your recovery momentum. Mindfulness meditation is an excellent way to acknowledge, accept and move on from guilt and make strides in recovery.
Learn to Say “No”
Do you find yourself saying yes to others when you know you shouldn’t? Is the fear of disappointing others contributing to you accepting more than you should? The more you stew over saying “yes” to too many things, knowing you should say “no,” the greater your feelings of guilt. However, when you establish boundaries and limits, you’ll be better able to say “no” without feeling guilty. Remember, though, to offer to help when you are able. That will take the sting out of your refusal and will also eliminate any guilty feelings you’d otherwise feel. Just be sure to follow-up on your offer to help, when it’s possible for you to do so, since doing something good for others, either through service or volunteering, is a hallmark of effective recovery.
Analyze Your Self-Expectations
If you’re too hard on yourself, it’s likely you have self-expectations that are unrealistic, too stringent, or unworkable. Instead, assess your skills, abilities and accomplishments. Put things into perspective and set priorities based on what you’re good at, not what others expect or demand of you.
Alcoholics Anonymous, “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: Step 9.” Retrieved June 18, 2017
Forbes, “6 Signs You Are Suffering From Guilt And Probably Don’t Know It.” Retrieved June 18, 2017
Psychology Today, “What Does Guilt Do? The role of guilt in repairing relationships.” Retrieved June 18, 2017
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Recovery and Recovery Support.” Retrieved June 18, 2017
WebMD, “Is Guilt Getting the Best of You?” Retrieved June 18, 2017